Football Features

MNM stutter and Haller joins Van Basten: Seven things you might have missed from the Champions League

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:31, 15 September 2021

The first round of the 2021/22 Champions League group stage came to a close with a thrilling eight matches on Wednesday evening.

A total of 28 goals were scored with all but four of the 16 teams finding the net and only one goalless draw. With so much action going on, though, fans trying to follow along would be bound to miss something. But that’s where we come in.

Read on for seven things you might have missed from Wednesday’s Champions League action.


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1. ‘MNM’ underwhelm on PSG debut

Of all eight games taking place on Wednesday, the one with the most eyes on it would have been Paris Saint-Germain’s trip to Club Brugge. The game brought the first start of the Neymar x Kylian Mbappe x Lionel Messi attacking trident after the latter’s move from Barcelona over the summer.

The trio were expected to blow Brugge away but, in reality, it was an underwhelming performance.

Mbappe was the star of the trio and he helped open the scoring, turning his defender inside out before cutting the ball back to Ander Herrera, but that would be it. Although he had a lot of touches, Neymar never really got into the game in an influential sense while Messi hit the crossbar with a first-half shot but also gave the ball away in the build up to Club Brugge’s equaliser (though it would be harsh to blame him given the time that passed).

Any dream of the trio turning on the style together in the second half lasted just five minutes after the break as Mbappe was forced to come off with an injury. Not ideal.

2. Jack Grealish gets off the mark

In the summer Manchester City paid £100m for Jack Grealish, finally giving the Englishman a bigger stage on which to shine, having done all he could do with Aston Villa. The quality has always been there and it was a shame that he had not played European football before his 26th birthday.

Well he’s now been 26 for less than a week and that has all changed, as Grealish started in Man City’s Champions League group stage opener against RB Leipzig and he certainly made his mark.

Playing left of Man City’s front three, Grealish got the game’s scoring underway by setting up Nathan Ake from an excellent corner after just 16 minutes, giving his side a lead they would not surrender.

But, more special for Grealish will be his goal which came 11 minutes into the second half. The Englishman picked the ball up on the left side of the pitch and drove into the box before cutting inside and curling into the right corner. This is just a sign of things to come from Grealish on the European stage.

3. Madness at the Etihad

It appears the Etihad was the place to be on Wednesday night and not just for Grealish’s Champions League debut, with the game bringing another seven goals across a frankly bizarre match between Man City and RB Leipzig.

The visitors are going through a transitional period under Jesse Marsch, trying to move on following the departure of Julian Nagelsmann and some key defenders over the summer, and it showed as they went 2-0 down to Man City within 30 minutes thanks to Ake and a poor own goal from Nordi Mukiele. But then things really got weird.

Christopher Nkunku, the star of the show for RB Leipzig, thought he had got his side back into the game just before half-time but Riyad Mahrez restored Man City’s two-goal advantage from the penalty spot moments later.

Nkunku would then twice get RB Leipzig back to within a goal in the 51st and 73rd minutes to complete his hat-trick but on both occasions Man City didn’t take long to go two ahead again, through Grealish and Joao Cancelo. There would be no more threats of a comeback for RB Leipzig as they were reduced to 10 men with former Man City defender Angelino sent off before Gabriel Jesus capped off the scoring for a 6-3 win. Wow.

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4. Dream debut for Haller

Also making his Champions League debut over in Portugal was Sebastien Haller, who joined Ajax in January from West Ham but wasn’t registered for their foray in the Europa League due to an administrative error. The Ivorian international has had an excellent start to life in Amsterdam, scoring 17 goals in 28 games across all competitions ahead of his Champions League debut against Sporting CP on Wednesday night.

On an occasion such as this, you could excuse Haller for taking some time to get comfortable but he needed just 68 seconds to find his footing and the back of the net.

Seven minutes later, Haller had his second, putting Ajax in firm control of the game linking up well with Antony and the pair would combine again in the second half to complete the Ivorian’s hat-trick.

Haller is now the 10th player to score a hat-trick on his Champions League debut, joining the likes of Marco van Basten, Faustino Asprilla, Wayne Rooney, Yakubu and Erling Haaland. But he was not done there, adding a fourth (only Van Basten had managed that on debut) en route to Ajax winning 5-1 against the Portuguese champions.

5. Hans Vanaken earns Club Brugge fully-deserved point

We spoke about the failure of ‘MNM’ to make an impact against Club Brugge but to focus solely on the trio would be to do the Belgian side a disservice. Club Brugge were excellent in holding PSG to a draw on Wednesday, a result they fully deserved having been comfortable for the majority of the match (with the exception of Herrera’s goal).

So when Hans Vanaken equalised for Club Brugge 12 minutes after Herrera put the visitors ahead, it was justification for the way they had taken the game to PSG rather than trying to sit back and soak up the pressure as other teams would have.

Vanaken’s strike also continued his excellent recent record for club and country, having scored or assisted in six of his past seven games, only failing against K Beerschot VA in the second game of the season. It was a lovely finish from the midfielder, a late run into the box to get onto the end of Eduard Sobol’s cut back, although it was slightly aided in beating Keylor Navas by a deflection off Kimpembe.

6. Real Madrid survive early onslaught in dramatic win

One of the bigger games of the first matchweek saw Real Madrid travel to the San Siro to face Inter Milan, two European giants going up against each other in the group stage for the second season in a row.

Both sides had started their respective league campaigns in unbeaten fashion and it looked as though it would remain that way in the Champions League – though it wasn’t for Inter’s lack of trying. The Italian side absolutely peppered Real Madrid’s goal in the first half, taking 14 shots in total (albeit only hitting the target three times). For Real Madrid, it was the second worst record in the opening 45 minutes of a Champions League match since at least 2005/06, only conceding more shots against Juventus (15) in November 2013.

Los Blancos stopped the rot in the second half, conceding just four more shots, and would ultimately get the killer goal in the 89th minute as substitute Rodrygo volleyed home from close range following good build up play.

It was a sense of deja vu for Inter, who lost 3-2 to Real Madrid last season thanks to a late Rodrygo goal after the Brazilian had come on from the bench.

7. Sheriff make history with ‘Premier-League inspired’ duo

Despite being perhaps the least glamorous of the eight games on Wednesday, Sheriff Tiraspol’s game against Shakhtar Donetsk is one they will remember forever.

The Moldovan National Division side were making their Champions League group stage debut on Wednesday, having been knocked out in qualifying on their previous 18 attempts – becoming the first team from Moldova’s top flight to reach this far. But they would not be happy with just that. Instead, Sheriff cruised to a 2-0 victory over Shakhtar, with Adama Traore (no, not that one) opening the scoring from a Cristiano (no, not that one either) assist.

Cristiano would get another assist for Momo Yansane’s goal just after the hour mark, sending Sheriff top of their group ahead of Real Madrid and Inter Milan.